In response to increased scrutiny of armed UAV operations by human rights groups, British legislators and the United Nations, the British Ministry of Defence (UK MoD) has stepped up efforts to reassure the public. Late last year, it allowed media (including AIN) access to the Royal Air Force Reaper ground control station (GCS) at RAF Waddington for the first time. New documents describing UK operational procedures, including targeting, have been released. The UK is one of only three countries to have fired weapons from UAVs in combat, the others being Israel and the U.S.
“We recognize that safety, legal and ethical concerns have been raised over ‘unmanned’ aircraft. That’s why we prefer the term ‘remotely piloted’; fully trained pilots are in complete control,” Air Vice Marshall Phil Osborn, director of capability, UK Joint Forces command, said during the briefing at Waddington. He said that the RAF’s Reaper fleet had flown more than 54,000 hours, and released 460 precision-guided munitions. The UAV can carry up to four Hellfire missiles and two GBU-12 laser-guided 500-pound bombs. But the figures show that the preponderance of effort is devoted to the ISR mission, rather than attack, Osborn noted.
Waddington is home to No. 13 Squadron, one of two in the RAF that operate the GA-ASI Reaper over Afghanistan. It was re-formed in 2012 after the UK finally gained permission from the U.S. to relocate two GCS from Creech AFB, Nevada, to the UK. The second squadron, No. 39, remains at the Nevada base with the third British-owned GCS. The RAF began operating its own Reapers over Afghanistan from there in 2008. The service previously contributed aircrews to U.S. Air Force MQ-1/9 Predator/Reaper squadrons in a co-manning agreement, which continues. British aircrews flew American Predators and Reapers over Iraq, and more recently over Libya during NATO Operation Unified Protector.
Rules of Engagement
This close cooperation has led to accusations that the UK lends support to the controversial U.S. Predator and Reaper operations over the tribal areas of Pakistan, and over Somalia and Yemen. The British government will not comment on whether it shares intelligence with the U.S. that might aid the latter’s UAV attacks on alleged terrorists in those countries. But it insists that the UK has operated its own Reapers solely over Afghanistan, and that all such British operations are conducted in strict compliance with International Humanitarian Law (also known as The Law of Armed Conflict).
In deference to their American friends and partners, MoD and RAF officials will not comment in detail on the difference between British and U.S. procedures for offensive operations by UAVs. But British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told the UK Parliament in October 2012 that “the U.S. operates in Afghanistan under a different basis of law from the one under which we operate.” More recently, Ben Emmerson, the British lawyer who is United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, told British legislators that “there is a very significant difference in the casualty hit rate.” Emmerson is producing reports for the U.N. on armed UAV operations.
On the wider issue of whether the U.S. is breaking international law by conducting UAV strikes outside recognized combat zones, Emmerson said, “The reality here is that the world is facing a new technological development which is not easily accommodated within the existing legal frameworks.”
At the Waddington briefing, AVM Osborn noted that the rules of engagement (RoE) followed by the RAF’s Reaper aircrew are “exactly the same as for our manned aircraft.” Those rules stipulate that weapons should not be discharged from any aerial platform unless there is zero expectation of civilian casualties, and that any individual or location should be presumed to be civilian in nature unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. The MoD says that when RAF aircrew operate U.S. Air Force Reapers or Predators under the co-manning agreement, the British RoEs must be applied in any attack.
Wing Cmdr. Damien Killeen, commander of No. 13 Squadron, showed video from a Reaper strike that was aborted by redirecting a laser-guided Hellfire missile that had already been launched, into an open area. This was because the targeted insurgent had meanwhile moved into an adjacent compound, whose purpose and potential occupants were unknown to the Reaper crew.
Killeen said that thanks to constant operations over Afghanistan, his aircrew had gained “unrivaled familiarity with the territory, including what is normal or not on the ground.” A 13 Squadron sensor operator told AIN that he had learned to discern on his video feed the vital difference between an insurgent digging a hole to plant an IED, and a farmer digging a water channel. He ascribed this skill to “experience, immersion and ‘campaign continuity.’”
An MoD briefing document suggests that despite being located thousands of miles from the action, the “situational awareness” of the Reaper aircrews is greater than that enjoyed by aircrew that are actually overflying. “[Reaper] aircrews usually observe a target area for a significant period prior to, and following, an engagement. This allows them to assess target validity, the likelihood of collateral damage and to observe the consequences of an attack in detail,” the document states. The UN’s Emmerson agrees that remotely piloted aircraft can reduce the risk of civilian casualties because of this effect.
The MoD says that it knows of only one RAF Reaper strike that resulted in the death of civilians. It said: “On 25 March 2011, an attack on two pickup trucks resulted in the destruction of a significant quantity of explosives and the death of two insurgents. Sadly, four Afghanistan civilians were also killed. An ISAF investigation concluded that the Reaper crew acted in accordance with established procedures and rules of engagement.”
The RAF deploys the crews of Tornado strike aircraft to Afghanistan for six months at a time, whereas the Reaper crews are doing the mission throughout their tour on the squadron, which typically lasts two-and-a-half to three years. They work eight-and-a-half-hour shifts on a six-days-on/three-days-off pattern. Within each shift, they spend two periods of two hours each within the GCS actually operating the aircraft and its sensors. Each crew consists of a pilot, sensor operator and mission intelligence coordinator (MIC). The UAVs are typically in the air for 16 hours; the maximum is 24 hours if no weapons are carried. “We try to get airborne every day, but weather is sometimes a constraint,” said one pilot. The Reaper has no anti-icing provision, or protection against lightning strikes.
Most of 13 Squadron’s pilots and sensor operators have previous operational flying experience on fast jets, multi-engine or rotary-wing RAF aircraft, said Killeen. But the unit has recently taken two pilots directly from flying training, and also has four who have come via the RAF’s new RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft system) training course. Some of the sensor operators are NCOs. The MICs have an intelligence and/or imagery analysis background, and come from the British Army and Navy, as well as the RAF.
At Waddington, the two 40-foot container-sized GCS are located side-by-side on a hangar floor that has been fenced to ensure secure access. But the aircrews that sit inside them are supported by a supervisor and other airmen, located in an operations room in the squadron’s accommodation above the hangar floor. In there, multiple feeds of collateral intelligence are received and assimilated, and voice contact can be established with various interested parties. These can range from commanders on the ground in Afghanistan to legal advisors at RAF Air Command headquarters.
Designed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI, Hall 2 Stand A9), the layout and controls of the GCS have been subject to criticism in some reports, and by rival providers of GCS. But improvements have been made over the years. The pilot and sensor operator sit side-by-side at one end, faced by no fewer than 14 screens displaying aircraft and engine parameters, the sensor feed, digital maps, satellite imagery for a wider “view,” and other intelligence feeds. A bank of five processors along one side separates them from the MIC at the other end of the cabin–who has another seven screens at his disposal. All three crew can communicate directly with “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan. In addition to the EO/IR and low-light television full-motion video (FMV), the Reaper also carries a synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) including a ground moving target indicator. The SAR/GMTI offers one- to four-inch resolution and a far wider view than the FMV.
The GCS at Waddington do not control the takeoffs and landings. The one-second time lag on the sensor feed from Afghanistan is sufficient to affect pilotage in what has proved to be a critical phase for safety-of-flight, especially in crosswinds. Only the more experienced pilots are deployed to the launch-and-recovery (LRE) ground stations at Kandahar, where they operate alongside U.S. aircrew. They are aided during airfield operations by the separate color/IR camera in the Reaper’s nose. But although Reapers have been damaged in landings, the RAF has written off only one of the five UAVs that it originally acquired. This incident in 2008 was blamed on a mechanical failure that led to a forced landing.
The RAF is taking delivery of another five Reapers. Together with the ground stations, they were bought using funds earmarked for urgent operational requirements (UORs). Last January, the MoD confirmed that the Reaper UAS will be kept in service after the country withdraws from Afghanistan at the end of this year. The UK’s total investment in this UAS is nearing £500 million, “and we’re not going to throw that away,” a senior RAF officer told AIN recently. Last January, joint firing trials on the UAV of the Brimstone missile that is already carried by RAF Tornados, were successfully completed in the U.S.
However, even if airspace rules are changed to allow UAVs to operate in nonsegregated airspace, the Reapers cannot be operated in the UK because the design cannot be certified to the MoD’s new and rigorous military airworthiness requirements. One of the arguments made by European aerospace industry leaders to justify development of a new medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV is that it will meet such criteria. Another is that MALE UAVs really need self-protection technology, if they are to operate in anything other than the most benign air defense environments. The MoD is still reviewing future basing options for the RAF Reapers.
But with Italy and France also now operating Reapers, and the Netherlands and even Germany likely to follow, it seems that this particular train has already left the station. In theory, the UK has a requirement for a new MALE UAV as part of the Scavenger program. But no one is taking bets on it ever happening. Instead, AIN expects that the UK and other European customers will put pressure on GA-ASI to deliver on its promise to develop an improved and certifiable “Reaper-X.”